On this week’s post, it’s beginning to look a lot like Christmas! We’re going to start by covering a couple of less traditional Christmas movies, but Christmas movies nonetheless. This week’s films are:
Joe Dante – Gremlins (1984)
John McTiernan – Die Hard (1988)
Some people might say these aren’t Christmas movies. But those people are wrong. These are both essential Christmas movies. Let’s get into it.
In this film, a man finds a small fluffy animal called a Mogwai in a mysterious shop in Chinatown. He buys the animal as a pet for his son, but is warned that there are several rules he must follow. He must keep the animal out of sunlight, he cannot get it wet, and he should never feed it after midnight. But when it gets home, his son Billy accidentally gets it wet. This causes the animal to reproduce five new Mogwai. Unfortunately, they don’t have the kind and cuddly disposition that the original Mogwai, Gizmo has. The new Mogwai trick Billy into feeding them after midnight, and they encase themselves in cocoons. The next day, they turn into scaly, mischevious creatures called Gremlins. After they escape the house and reproduce further, Billy must find a way to stop the Gremlins before they destroy the town.
The film is directed by Joe Dante, in one of his early films. The had already directed the werewolf movie The Howling, and Piranha. Over his career, he’s been known for creating films with lots of special effects, or particularly puppet work, and Gremlins is no exception. The film stars Zach Galligan as Billy Peltzer, Phoebe Cates and Hoyt Axton, and also features Judge Reinhold, Corey Feldman, and the ultimate “that guy” Dick Miller as Murray Futturman, the next door neighbor of the Peltzers. The cast is full of people who were well known in the 80s, but perhaps aren’t as well remembered by the public. I watched this film with a friend, and was really surprised she didn’t know who Phoebe Cates was.
The film is a fascinating mix between comedy and horror. Joe Dante was mainly a horror director, and this film is heavily influenced by common horror tropes, but this was also a film produced by Steven Spielberg, so that meant family friendly. I think most audiences watching this today would be shocked to discover this film was rated PG. It’s not as much the cursing, and there’s no nudity. But the amount of gore and suggestive scenes would push this to PG-13 or maybe even an R. Of course, in that day and age, PG-13 didn’t really exist at the time. In fact, it was invented for Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom, at the insistence of Spielberg himself.
Early in the film, it feels like a heartwarming family film, but with some danger under the surface. We learn of the rules early in the film, and it’s a perfect setup. We know immediately that as soon as Randall Peltzer buys the Mogwai, that we’re going to see those rules broken. It’s the old phrase, if you see a gun in the first act, it has to fire by the third act. In this film, we hear the rules in the prologue. And of course the rules are broken soon after.
The film takes some time to set things up. We see Billy go off to work as a bank teller, and we meet Kate, played by Phoebe Cates. We also meet Mrs. Deagle, as much of a villain we have in the film, short of the gremlins themselves.
Mrs. Deagle is an interesting amalgam of movie references. She’s played like the Mrs. Gulch/The Wicked Witch from The Wizard of Oz, but her character is reminiscent of Mr. Potter from It’s a Wonderful Life. She seems to own the entire town, and acts like it. She pushes her way to the front of the line at the bank, demanding service immediately, and accuses Billy’s dog of breaking one of her Christmas decorations. She threatens the dog, much like Mrs. Gulch threatened Toto, and makes herself one of the more unlikable characters in film.
Billy is portrayed as someone stuck in life. He has a dead end job, but dreams of becoming an artist. We see him drawing often. The town they live in is portrayed as a small town that’s losing it’s identity. The local bar is failing, and Kate works there for free most nights to try to help keep it open. Judge Reinhold plays Gerald, representing the expectations for Billy in his life. Gerald is young, and already a higher up at the bank they work at. He’s also set up as a bit of a rival for Kate’s affections, but just enough to show that Kate isn’t interested in him.
But the thing that makes this film essential, is Gizmo, the Mogwai. There is no such creature, but the filmmakers have created one of the cutest, cuddliest, most adorable animals ever to appear on film. He’s got big eyes, giant ears, and fluffy fur. The film holds off on revealing him as long as possible. We only hear his little coos and a few words he can say. He seems to be pretty intelligent, but perfectly happy acting as a pet.
Of course, Gizmo is a puppet, which makes the achievement even greater. Computer generated characters weren’t really a thing in 1984, at least not that could be inserted into a live action film seamlessly. So everything had to be done live, with a puppet that the other actors could interact with. There’s an amazing moment in Gizmo’s introduction scene that shows how good the puppeteering is. Billy has a dog who curiously eyes Gizmo when he comes out of his box. The dog leans in and licks one of Gizmo’s ears suddenly, and Gizmo reacts. It’s possible the dog was incredibly well-trained, but it seems just as likely that the dog did something unexpected and the puppeteer noticed and included it in his performance. The puppeteering all through the film is exceptional. Not only is there Gizmo, and the additional Mogwai that get created when he gets wet, but there’s also the gremlins in the second half of the film. There are hundreds of the gremlins, in increasingly complex scenes. There’s a single scene of stop motion animation, when we first see the newly reproduced gremlins coming into town to cause trouble, but otherwise it’s all puppets.
Let’s jump ahead and talk about the gremlins. The word comes from British pilots who would blame the invisible creatures for all the problems they had with their equipment. The gremlins in this film portray that heritage. When they appear, they start messing with whatever machinery they can find and generally causing trouble. They first appear in Billy’s house, after the Mogwai that were produced from Gizmo break his clock to convince him that it isn’t quite midnight yet. He feeds them, and they encase themselves in cocoons, transforming into Gremlins the next day. The scenes with the cocoons are straight horror, creepy and unnerving. We don’t know what’s going to happen with them. The TV in Billy’s room even plays Invasion of the Body Snatchers referencing the pods in that film.
When they emerge, Billy’s mother is the only one at home, and she has to fight them herself. In a really gory scene, she manages to kill three of them, before Billy makes it home and kills a fourth that’s attacking her. But the 5th, Stripe, the leader, manages to get away and get to the local pool, reproducing hundreds of new gremlins. Which leads us to the major setpiece of the film, as the gremlins begin to destroy the town.
We see all the characters we’ve seen before now having to deal with this sudden infestation. And interestingly for a PG movie, the gremlins aren’t just mischievous, they are vicious and murderous. They don’t just cause problems or break things, they have sharp claws and rake at their victims. They also kill Mrs. Deagle by breaking the motorized chair she uses to get up the stairs. It speeds up and then flings her out the window.
There are a ton of great bits and references in the film from the gremlins. One scene occurs in the local bar, with Kate trying to satisfy the gremlins. It’s basically a puppeteering showcase. The gremlins play cards, drink, smoke, and even re-enact scenes from Flashdance. This is where the film fills in some more of the comedy, showing the gremlins as dangerous, but still silly creatures. They’re all id, just wanting to experience pleasure and fun, however they manage it.
The film wraps up with all the gremlins gathering in a movie theater to avoid the coming sunlight. Billy destroys the theater, and then chases Stripe, who has left the theater in search of more candy. This leads to a final showdown between Gizmo and Stripe. Stripe is trying to reproduce again in a water fountain, but Gizmo manages to open a skylight, essentially melting Stripe in the sunlight.
In the epilogue of the film, the old Chinese man who originally had Gizmo returns to get him back, telling the Peltzer family they aren’t ready for the responsibility of the Mogwai, but maybe someday they will.
I have so many great memories about this film. Gremlins was a major part of my childhood. I’m certain I had a Gizmo plush doll, and I seem to remember having a gremlin doll as well. But one of my favorite memories was a series of audio books that were on vinyl records. They came with little books. You would play the record, and it would read the story to you, with sound effects and such, and tell the story of Gremlins. Here’s the first on Youtube:
I listened to these constantly when I was a kid. I’m not sure what motivated these, but they’re an excellent way to get kids excited for your film, and help them with their reading. I was an early reader myself. I went into kindergarten already knowing how to read, and I sometimes wonder if books like these made that possible.
Regardless, this is an essential film. Just scary enough for a little kid, but funny and memorable. And a wonderful Christmas film. But we’ll talk more about that later.
Die Hard (1988)
In Die Hard, John McClane is a New York police officer who is visiting his estranged wife in Los Angeles for Christmas. But during the Christmas party, terrorists take over the building, and McClane manages to get away. He’s the only one in a position to stop their plan. As he begins engaging the terrorists and causing them problems, will be able to survive the night?
The film is directed by John McTiernan and stars Bruce Willis as John McClane and Alan Rickman as Hans Gruber, the leader of the terrorists. Bruce Willis was starting to make a name for himself as a television actor, but this film launched him into full-fledged movie stardom. Alan Rickman was almost completely unknown at the time, but this launched his film career as well.
The interplay between these two characters is what really makes the film, but more than that, the structure of the film is almost perfect. This film launched a little subgenre in action films. The genre involves a single man, someone not a super spy, or a soldier with all the best weaponry and training. They get thrown into a situation where they are the only individual that can stop some catastrophe from occurring. Films in this genre are often called “Die Hard on a…” For example, Speed is Die Hard on a Bus. There are several films that are “Die Hard on a Plane”, like Air Force One. Lots of films follow this format now, but this film was fairly unique at the time.
So they get the big stuff right, giving us a fresh take on the action movie, but McTiernan also gets the little things right. The film starts off with about 20 minutes of setup, with no action at all. But everything that happens in this setup section gives us information we need to set up the rest of the film. The first scene occurs on an airplane where John McClane is revealed as a nervous flier. His seatmate tells him that when he gets where he’s going, to take off his shoes and walk on the carpet barefoot, making fists with his toes. McClane does this, and it sets up the fact that he’s barefoot for the rest of the film. This subplot adds an extra layer, and keeps coming up, becoming an essential aspect of the story. We also learn that McClane’s wife Holly (played by Bonnie Bedelia) has gone back to using her maiden name, Generro. This leads to Hans not realizing the connection between the two until very late in the film. These little nuggets of information go on and on in the first twenty minutes of the film.
A modern action film wouldn’t dare give the audience 20 minutes of quiet setup before the action begins. Most action movies now are known for starting with major action setpieces that also act as some kind of setup.
Once the terrorists show up, McClane manages to get away before they see him, and starts trying to come up with a plan. Initially, he focuses on getting word to the police. This introduces another important character that’s essential to the way the story is told: Sergeant Al Powell. Powell is sent to the building and asked to check it out after McClane has sent a radio call that the police assume is a prank. Powell is initially reassured that everything is ok, as the terrorists have planned for this sort of thing, but McClane gets his attention by tossing one of the slain terrorists out of a window onto his car. Powell sounds the alarm, and begins talking to McClane on the radio.
This character solves what could have been a major problem into a strength. Since McClane is all alone, he doesn’t have anyone to talk to to describe his plans or explain what he’s doing or why. He has a radio where he can listen to the terrorists, but talking to them is a very specific kind of communication. When he’s talking to the terrorists, he’s taunting them or toying with them. The film needs a way to humanize McClane so we can relate to him, and it does this through Powell. Almost all of McClane’s most human moments come when he’s talking to Powell. With him, he can relax a bit, and so can the audience. You just can’t have an action film that stays at 100% all the time. It has to ebb and flow so the audience can breathe and get ready for the next dose of action.
The interplay between McClane and Gruber is wonderful, revealing Alan Rickman as one of the great actors of his generation. This is hammered home when Hans has to check on some explosives the terrorists have set by himself, and McClane catches him. Instead of bantering with him, Hans simply changes his accent and pretends to be one of the partygoers. We get some back and forth before Hans reveals himself when his backup arrives. It’s a really nice sequence. Unlike a lot of action films, the hero and villain barely interact directly until this scene, and they spend most of the film not knowing who the other person is.
This film maintains the pace perfectly, leading to a great climax where Hans has discovered who Holly is, and holds her hostage while they try to get away with the money they were trying to steal. There are only two terrorists left at this point, McClane has taken out all the rest. We then get one of the best resolutions in any action movie. Just go watch it.
Die Hard is one of the best action films of all time. I was tempted to do this with my other pick for best action film of all time, and compare them, but I decided to treat Die Hard as a Christmas movie.
It’s barely worth talking about how great the film is, because it’s so well known. So let’s talk about why these are both Christmas films.
The Double Feature
When people think of Christmas movies, they probably think of things like White Christmas, or It’s a Wonderful Life. They’re supposed to remind us of the spirit of the holidays, and how important family is, and snow and fireplaces, etc. Right? Well, maybe, but we can also apply it to films set at Christmas, or remind us of the holidays and other things.
Both of these films are set at Christmas time. The entire plot of Gremlins is predicated on a Christmas gift. The world is covered in snow and Christmas decorations. And in Die Hard, even though the film takes place in Los Angeles, a city known for not having snow, the film use Christmas music as it’s main soundtrack, but with a twist. And of course, both films are essentially about family. Both protagonists are trying to protect their families from threats they face.
And as for deeper connections between the films, you could almost say that John McClane is a bit of gremlin to Hans Gruber and his team. He’s in the background, rarely seen, gumming up the works, and ruining their plans. Both are films that have an action bent as well, although Gremlins is much more of a horror and comedy film.
Regardless, both films are essential films but for different reasons. Die Hard is an action film that practically invented it’s own subgenre, and Gremlins mixed horror and comedy along with incredible practical effects into a classic.
I’m considering slowing down the blog next semester. At least until the summer hits. I feel like the quick pace along with the other things I have to do is producing lower quality posts. So I think moving to an every other week schedule will be a little more doable at least for the Spring semester.
I also adjusted my note taking for this set of films. I normally take copious notes on every little aspect of the film, writing down the entire plot, scene by scene. I often write 3-4000 words just in notes before writing the blog post. But I feel like by focusing on the plot in my notes, I’m focusing too much on the plot in my posts. It’s a bad habit, and I’m trying to break it. So this time I only wrote down about 6 quick notes for each film, spending more time focusing on the films themselves. I think over time it will lead to better posts.
So what about next week’s films? I want to keep doing Christmas movies, and move towards a bit more traditional Christmas films. But looking through my collection, I see that I don’t have a ton of those hanging around. But I do have two that I think are appropriate, and we get to go back to one of the most common filmmakers we’ve covered. Next week’s films are:
Ernst Lubitsch – The Shop Around the Corner (1940)
Richard Donner – Scrooged (1988)
One is a lesser known film, but a Christmas movie through and through, and the other is a retelling of the ultimate Christmas story, A Christmas Carol. Should be fun. See you next week.